Luke 19: 28-44

Over the course of this Lenten season, I have spoken a good deal about the relationship between politics and faith – or, more specifically, how various episodes in Luke’s Gospel illustrate this relationship, particularly in terms of Jesus’ identity as King and Lord, and how this compares to the way lordship is exercised by the political powers of Jesus’ lifetime.  And in today’s reading, we have, as it were, a kind of finale to this exploration; a finale that achieves its full expression in the events of Good Friday, but which, through Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is nonetheless brought to a final, decisive closure.

The first thing we need to know is that today’s passage is “bookended” by two political references, one immediately before today’s reading, and another that the forms the end of today’s reading.  These political references are critical to our understanding of today’s passage, because they form the context in which Luke’s theological argument about Jesus’ identity takes shape.  And this theological argument is not just a declaration about who Jesus is, it tells us something about the Kingdom of God itself, because it compares the political reality of human life to the promised reality of a restored humanity taken up into the life of God.

Immediately before today’s passage, Jesus tells a parable about a nobleman who goes to a distant country to receive a kingship, and who, upon returning home, orders his disobedient servants to be slaughtered.  This is a passage that has troubled and confused many generations of Christians, not least because its depiction of a terrifying tyrant seems so at odds with the ideal of the self-giving Christ.  But this confusion is dispelled when we realise that this parable is a political allusion: a depiction, not of God, or the Kingdom of God, but of the temporal powers who ruled Judea during Jesus’ lifetime.

Specifically, it is an allusion to Herod Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 4BC to 6AD.  Archelaus had travelled to Rome to have his succession confirmed by the Roman Emperor Augustus; but in Rome he had been opposed by his brother Antipater, who argued that he should be king instead. Even before he left Judea, Archelaus had caused nearly 3,000 people to be killed for defying his wishes; and when he returned from Rome with his kingship confirmed, his resentment against those who had opposed him resulted in a reign of such cruelty that the Romans were eventually forced to depose Archelaus and banish him to a colony in what is now southern France[1].

So immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Luke has Jesus tell a parable full of political significance for Jesus’ audience: by invoking the memory of Herod Archelaus, Jesus is making no bones about the state of human kingship: it is corrupt and oppressive.  And this observation was important not only as a political commentary, it also critiqued those messianic expectations that anticipated the expulsion of the Romans and the restoration of the Kingdom of David. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God does not replicate the tyranny of Archelaus, a reign of brutality and bloodshed; but neither is it a matter of replacing one earthly power with another.  Any understanding of God’s restoration that is couched in purely human terms is inadequate; it leads only to a repetition of the tyranny and oppression of despotic politics[2].

And that tyranny and oppression is represented in the second political image that frames today’s passage, the one that ends with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.  When Luke has Jesus talking about the enemies of Jerusalem ringing the city with ramparts and crushing it in a welter of bloodshed, he is utilising his retrospective knowledge of the failed Jewish revolt of AD70 to make a salient point.  And that point is that all those religious and political fanatics who thought that, through their actions, they could precipitate God’s return and the restoration of David’s Kingdom, were not just wrong, they were culpably responsible for the terrifying destruction which the Romans inflicted upon Jerusalem as punishment for the Jews’ rebelliousness. The conceit, the presumption that imagines that human beings are somehow capable of forcing God’s hand and bringing about those conditions which precipitate God’s final consummation lead, not to the Second Coming, but to death.

So what is the point of these two sombre political images: of, on the one hand, the depiction of Archelaus’ tyranny and the inadequacy of human expectation; and, on the other hand, of the terrible consequences of human conceit? What do these terrible “bookends” to today’s passage tell us – and where can we possibly find any Good News in the text which they frame?

The first thing these images tell us is that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem cannot be viewed with any kind of triumphalism[3].  Unlike Archelaus returning to lord it over his cowering subjects, or the Romans bursting through the walls to exact a terrible vengeance, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not a proclamation of political or military sovereignty.  Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey cannot simply be viewed as a subversive parody of a king or general entering a conquered city.  To do so is to link both the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ own Lordship to human paradigms; and the result of that is, inevitably, the kind of hubris that results in terrible destruction.  These grim political images tell us that the only response to oppressive power is not a countervailing oppressive power, but the power of humility, the power of grace, the power of hope, the power of trust.  The only response to oppressive power is to surrender power and embrace radical vulnerability; for it is only when we are vulnerable, only when we have given up everything we stand to lose, that we are free from oppressive power’s capacity to tyrannise.

Thus, Jesus riding into Jerusalem becomes an image: he is the Prince of Peace who offers peace.  Archelaus does not offer peace; zealots do not offer peace; the Romans do not offer peace.  This is indicated by the acclamation of the people as Jesus wends his way down the Mount of Olives: Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven echoes the acclamation made at Jesus’ birth: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among people of his favour.  Luke has brought Easter and Christmas together by declaring that heavenly peace is also peace for earth, God’s peace made manifest in Jesus for the sake of humanity[4].  Jesus going into Jerusalem is an offering of peace from God to humanity; but humanity will reject that peace, a rejection symbolised by the terrible injustice of the Cross.

Which helps explain the response Jesus gives to the complaining Pharisees: even if these were silent, the stones would cry out.  Again, Luke is using his retrospective knowledge of subsequent events to issue a dire warning and to articulate God’s lament for suffering humanity; for only a few short decades after Jesus’ execution, all that will remain of the Temple will be that section now known as the western (or wailing) wall, mute testimony to the savagery with which the Romans suppressed the Jewish revolt.  In their stark witness to destruction, the stones of the western wall cry out with the voice of all those who have been repressed and enslaved[5]; and in Jesus’ own suffering on the Cross, God enters into the terrible depths of human cruelty.  So even in this joyful, abundant acclamation we hear the voice of lament: ah, Jerusalem, if only you had recognised the things that make for peace!

But where is the Good News in all of this? It is in the message that God stands with all those who long for liberation[6], whether from the tyranny of their own brokenness, or the tyranny of those destructive powers which human beings unleash upon one another.  But God’s solidarity is not the response of armed revolution, or organised civil disobedience.  God’s solidarity is to abandon deity and enter into our humanity; and not only this, but to then become entirely vulnerable to the powers of oppression and evil, to suffer and die at their hands.  Because it is only when this has occurred that the Resurrection means anything: having become the bearer of human hopes, Jesus carries those hopes through the darkness and despair of death into the new light, the new life of resurrection.  It is only when God has suffered everything it is possible to suffer at our hands that God gathers up all this evil in the person of Jesus – the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world – and overcomes them, transforming this brokenness into a renewed humanity whose life is taken up into the eternal life of God.

No human being can do this.  A few, perhaps, have come close; and we call them saints and other honorifics.  But only God, in and through the humanity of Jesus, was capable of being so radically vulnerable as to proclaim peace and go to the Cross for the sake of that proclamation; and only God, through the divinity of the Risen Christ, was able to take that evil, reconcile it to God for the sake of suffering humanity, and transform it into the promise that is the Kingdom of God. Faced with evil, human beings can only act; and in our actions, we often replicate the evil we seek to oppose.  Only God, in Jesus, was capable of responding to evil by not acting, but by offering: offering himself, his life, his vulnerability, his humanity.  And only God, in Jesus, was capable of being so wholly consumed by evil that in the end evil consumed itself, leaving only the unbroken promise of the glorious, Risen Lord who summons us all to eternal life.

God’s solidarity with human suffering is the response, not of acting, but of offering: offering the totality of God’s love, so that no evil might have the final word in the scheme of human existence.  And it is in this offering that human beings are empowered to act, not in ways that reproduce evil for evil, but in ways that replicate God’s self-giving love.  And perhaps this is ultimately what all true saints and people of peace have ever done: responded to the offer of God’s love, so that they might in turn offer that love to others.  If we understand this, then our politics, our economics, our philosophy, our science, yes, even our theology, becomes a matter, not of act and response, not of power and control, but of love.  Distinctions of left and right, progressive and conservative, disappear and become irrelevant, and we realise what Luke has being saying to us all along through this Lenten journey: that politics and faith are not separate realms engaged in a sometimes problematic and conflicted relationship; but that they are, viewed from the perspective of love, one and the same – realms through which we respond to God’s love and make that love available to all the world.

[1] Josephus, The Jewish Antiquities (trans. William Whiston) Bk.17, Ch.8:4 and Ch.9; and The Jewish War (Trans. Whiston) Bk.2 Ch.1, cited in Wikipedia article “Herod Archelaus”, located at accessed on 22.3.13

[2] Loader, William “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Palm Sunday”, located at accessed 22.3.13

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


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